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When will the Turnpike reopen? It depends on the rain, and damage left by floodwaters

Drone video of the flooded Kansas Turnpike

The Kansas Turnpike remains closed from Wellington to the Oklahoma border as floodwaters from recent heavy rains cover the highway. (May 8, 2019)
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The Kansas Turnpike remains closed from Wellington to the Oklahoma border as floodwaters from recent heavy rains cover the highway. (May 8, 2019)

Thursday night update: The Kansas Turnpike Authority reopened both directions of I-35 at around 10 p.m. Thursday.

Thursday morning update: The Kansas Turnpike opened one lane to southbound travelers from Wellington to Oklahoma Thursday. It’s expected to remain that way throughout the day and night Thursday. Drivers should expect delays and check KanDrive.org regularly, a spokesperson for KTA said.

Flooding forced the closure of the Kansas Turnpike between Wellington and the Oklahoma border all day Wednesday, and it was unclear when it would reopen.

That’s one of many ways flash floods affected the region.

Multiple school districts closed. Others had to set alternate “mud” routes for buses. Rescue boats evacuated people from their homes in areas hit hardest by flash floods, including in Wellington and Mulvane south of Wichita. Southeast of Wichita, rain gauges in Rose Hill measured more than 10 inches in 24 hours.

And truckers and commuters had to wait or find a different route when water spilled over the Turnpike, the main north-south route between Kansas and Oklahoma. More than 18,000 travelers a day use the highway south of Wellington, according to the Kansas Turnpike Authority.

At Slate Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River that runs under the Turnpike four miles south of the Wellington exit, rising water forced the toll road to shut down at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. No injuries were reported.

Slate Creek hit a peak of 25.7 feet around 3 a.m. Wednesday, according to preliminary data from the United States Geological Survey. It had a flow of 22,800 cubic feet per second. That’s enough to consider it a 100-year flood — a flood so severe that it has only a 1% chance of happening each year.

The only time the creek ran higher and harder was June 17, 1975, according to records dating back to 1960. Its peak in 1975 was 25.82 feet and 28,500 cubic feet per second, said Craig Painter, chief of the hydraulic data section of the USGS.

When the highway will reopen was still unclear Wednesday evening.

“Our crews have to get in and assess the condition of the pavement, of the actual asphalt, after the water recedes. So the key is when that water actually gets out of the area,” said Rachel Bell, director of business services and customer relations for the Kansas Turnpike Authority.

“We do have a contractor kind of in the area doing another project and so we’re hopeful that we can make whatever repairs might be necessary rather quickly. But I can’t put a time frame on what quickly means at this point,” she said.

The best detour around the closed highway is also unclear. The Turnpike was planned and mostly completed before the interstate highway designation in Kansas, and federal planners chose not to build parallel routes, according to the Turnpike’s website.

“You know, with the way water flows, it’s hard at this point because we’ve had so much rain in such a large area. It’s hard to specify that there should be one detour,” Bell said.

She said she didn’t immediately have information on how often Slate Creek flooding had forced a closure of the Turnpike.

The Kansas Turnpike Authority has been scrutinized in the past for being too slow to fix areas known to flood.

In 2014, Zachary Clark, 21, died in a flash flood in the Flint Hills, where a culvert funnels a creek underneath the Turnpike. Witnesses said Clark’s Ford Mustang, going about 5 mph under the 75 mph speed limit along with other traffic, hit about 10 inches of floodwater on the roadway. His car spun into the flooded ditch and was pulled into a deadly whirlpool, the Eagle reported at the time.

That was the second time water swept people to their death along a 2-mile stretch of highway near Emporia that was known to flood.

In 2015, under increased pressure, the Kansas Turnpike Authority commissioned a long-term-needs study. It has also spent $3 million in recent years to expand culverts to prevent flooding of the highway, including where Clark died.

That study didn’t identify Slate Creek as an area of concern, Bell said. It’s unclear at this time whether the Turnpike Authority will do something long-term to protect drivers from future floods near Slate Creek.

“That area had not been identified in this long-term needs study, but obviously we’ll need to take a look at what repairs are necessary at this point. And what that might entail, I think it’s too early to say at this point,” Bell said.

Contributing: Jason Tidd of The Eagle

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.


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